Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Preparing for A Convention

I’m getting ready to attend a convention and run a game – something I haven’t done in a while – so I’m slowly pulling myself and my materials together in a somewhat-familiar way so I’m as prepared as possible to put a positive face on the event.

I haven’t attended a convention as a gamemaster in a while. Before becoming a father I had a regular calendar of several regional conventions each year, at which I’d do the gaming guest thing running roleplaying game sessions, speaking on panels, mingling with gamers, and occasionally hosting a dealers room table. I’ve since had little time or energy to regularly attend conventions; most of my recent forays have been as a regular con-goer, hanging out with gamers, playing in a game or two, and shopping among the dealers. (I’ve previously discussed my annual pilgrimage to now-nearby Historicon the past few years.) Having worked both ends of the spectrum – from hard-sell game designer to average con-goer – I can appreciate the amount of work gamemasters put into their convention games as well as the relaxed and friendly atmosphere a good convention offers.

But I’ve set myself the goal of taking some new game designs to demo, playtest, and showcase at some small, regional conventions in the new year; so I’m trying to get back into the groove to make myself and my game look as professional as possible.

I’m planning on running a free-form, four-hour demo/playtest session of Panzer Kids, a kid-friendly wargame of World War II tank battles I’m developing. Although the first draft of the basic rules is complete, it hasn’t quite entered the layout stage yet. (And I’m still drafting “optional” advanced rules for the deluxe version.) So I’m prepping some essential materials for running a game at the convention, most of which are planned components of the final game: simple stat cards for various tanks for reference, a one-page summary of the stats on the cards, and a one-page rules summary to display at the table. My brilliant stroke of marketing genius (or shameless self-promotion) came in devising the stat card backs; since I intend to print and trim a host of them to give out to players, I put a short blurb about the game on the card back with the Griffon Publishing Studio website address so they can watch for further updates about the game in development.

Aside from game materials I need to produce, I must prep and pack all the wargaming paraphernalia for the convention: tank miniatures to match the stat cards, terrain pieces, my 4x6-foot, tan felt “desert terrain” mat, dice, hit tokens, and sign holders (for the aforementioned one-page game reference materials).

I always have to psych myself up for conventions where I’m presenting my game design projects. It’s not that I’m immersing myself in a role of game designer, but more training myself to project a positive, friendly, and open presence. Much of this actually comes down to believing in myself and what I’ve created to overcome a natural degree of self-doubt.

Once I finish with the “business” end of con prep – including making hotel arrangements, registering the game, and registering for the convention itself – I can move along to more enjoyable activities based more in my convention-goer role: perusing the program to look for games I’d like to join as a player, packing some board games to try in any open board game areas I find (and resisting the urge to pack everything...), compiling a short list of game goodies to seek among the dealers, and e-mailing a few friends I hope to see.

Over the years I’ve kept a small journal with notes from my past convention participation: game sessions I ran with times and number of players; impressions of convention space, attendance, and dealers; contacts I make; and ideas for future convention appearances. It’s all done in the spirit of learning by reflecting on past experiences. Using this method I’ve learned a lot and changed how I approach conventions, yet I also realize I am always learning, that I always have something I can improve and must adjust to new situations. I’m looking forward to the upcoming convention and my Panzer Kids demo/playtest session; we’ll see what notes I add to my convention participation notebook and what areas I can improve.

As always, I encourage constructive feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Six Pilgrims

I’ve diverted slightly from some of my projects at the start of the new year to pursue a quick exercise channeling some recent inspiration into a personal challenge. The inspiration came from my recent admiration of the interesting “randomizers as pieces” element of CoinAge and an urge to explore the issue of whether mechanics or theme came first in designing a game (a topic I’d like to address in a future Game Design Journal entry). The result is a quick, abstract game with a medieval theme called Six Pilgrims. I apologize in advance...this is one of those posts where I ramble through my creative process, so please bear with me.

One of the elements I liked about Coin Age was how each player’s casting of the coins served both to randomly determine what action they could take in a turn and also define the available pieces to deploy on the map. Once placed the pieced didn’t move, but played a role in the territory control aspect of the game. Using randomizers as pieces appealed to me as a concept, though I wasn’t quite sure where I’d go with that.

I wanted to experiment with an idea of using six-sided dice as both randomizers and pieces in an abstract game I could lightly overlay with some basic theme elements. I decided to use a simple gridded playing surface like a chess board, though I chose to narrow that down to six dice on a six-by-six square grid; this would accommodate my intention to use a seventh die to randomly affect dice during play. I also imposed upon myself the condition that the game rules serve both a solitaire player as well as two players head-to-head (each using six dice on the board and a seventh one on the side). For my “randomizers as pieces” element I determined that during set-up players would roll each playing-piece die and deploy it on the resulting space within a column; for instance, rolling a “4” would place that die in the fourth square up from the player’s side of the board. In this way one die would occupy each column at a variable “height.” I wanted to use a roll of the seventh die at the beginning of each turn to randomly determine one column whose die would “drop” one space, possibly even moving it off the bottom edge of the board and out of play.

I played around with a game objective motivating players to manipulate the dice on the board. Moving off the top of the board seemed diametrically opposed to the “downward” movement randomly determined at the beginning of each turn; so I settled on lateral movement, making the random “drop” each turn a nuisance and a means of eliminating pieces that might score at the game’s end. I decided a die could move off the right edge of the board only if all the dice lined up on the same row; for extra depth I allowed other dice of the departing die’s value to leave as well...so if a die valued at “5” departed the right edge of the board, all the other dice in the line showing “5” leave, too. This led to a short list of player actions each turn: move one die up or down one space; move one die to the right one space into an unoccupied column (possible only after dice start moving off the board); change the value of one die by one pip (to increase scoring or enable multiple, similar dice to move off the board). No action could affect the single die “dropped” by the random roll at the beginning of that turn. After outlining these rules in a far more clearly organized manner – and determining how conflicting dice would work with two opposing players – I ran a few solitaire games for myself to iron out the kinks and adjust the rules to those hastily explained above.

When creating games I generally tend to focus on a theme first – one that engages a personal interest – then develop mechanics based on a fulfilling game experience keyed to that theme. This exercise in employing a “randomizers as pieces” element proved quite the opposite of how I normally go about conceiving of and developing a game. I now had a set of mechanics I liked, but no theme to add some flavor (or even an interesting title) to an abstract set of rules.

Two generalized themes became apparent in the rules as I’d envisioned them: falling down and off the bottom of the board; and bringing the dice into alignment to “escape” off the right side of the board. I was immediately reminded of and inspired by a review of the Titanic SOS game (which fired my subsequent search for material about that game). I also thought about other themes involving evacuation or escape in my general field of interests such as history, science fiction, and fantasy, like abandoning a damaged spacecraft or leaving a doomed planet. Meh. Nothing really came together to excite me or provide some basic theme elements (like a title) to enhance the rules. I looked at the dice sitting on my chess board, thought about the medieval origins and importance of chess, and thought what general medieval setting ideas I had floating around. Then it dawned on me: it might fit the Infinite Cathedral fantasy roleplaying setting I’ve had on the back burner for a few years.

I envisioned the Infinite Cathedral as an alternate plane of existence where people were magically and inexplicably dumped from various other medieval realities, a vast expanse of mostly ruined cathedral architecture, grids of columned naves and transepts with cloisters in the spaces between them. Inhabitants (and their trapped descendents) frequently face a choice between accepting their fate and settling down in small enclaves or continuing a seemingly hopeless quest for some means of returning to their home worlds. With the religious overtones of the Infinite Cathedral and a built-in escape motif I found a thematic means of framing my abstract rules. The dice represent six pilgrims seeking to escape or “ascend” from the infinite bounds of the cathedral, with the downward mechanic symbolizing the pull of despair threatening to deter them from their quest. For one to “ascend” they must all align geographically and philosophically.

To complete this exercise I need to revise my draft rules, include a few diagrams and examples, work up a print-and-play board, and send it off to my usual keen playtesters; but overall I’m pleased with this simple diversion.

As always, I encourage constructive feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.